Steel Magic (Andre Norton)

Another thing I'm on the verge of excluding from the Quickies? Short, toothless children's books. So many of these books amount to "Some kids bumble into trouble, are told what to do to save everything, they pull it off without a hitch," and what more is there for me to say about them than summarizing the threadbare story which may or may not just be setup for sequels? I'm also getting tired of saying "Good children's books need to have something for an adult" and "If you think it's okay to feed kids garbage just because they're kids, then fuck you, buddy."

Granted, Steel Magic isn't offensive trash like Daniel X, it's just... pointless. Some kids end up in Avalon, are told by Merlin they need to get his ring, Excalibur, and a hunter's horn back before the armies of darkness destroy both their worlds, they pull it off without a hitch using cutlery because steel is deadly to magic creatures. That last part might make the book sound kooky enough to be worth a look, but it's not.


The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (SNES)

So here's a story I've told a couple times before: when I was in 2nd grade and my family got our first Super Nintendo, I was expecting it to come with Super Mario World. Instead, it came with Link to the Past and I was originally disappointed. But when I actually played it I found a rich, creative world that captivated my young mind and shaped my gaming tastes to a degree just might be second only to Blaster Master, and my adult self knows that between Link to the Past and Super Mario World, the former is by far the more fulfilling experience. Though it also brings up memories of some embarrassing shit I did as a kid, like trying to call a classmate by looking up his last name in the phone book (and likely pissing off a lot of strangers) to ask him how to open up the last part of Skull Woods, having to get my brother to beat Blind for me because I was utterly terrified of him, and not being able to clear the Dark Palace because I kept missing a bombable wall.

Looking at it now, while Link to the Past mostly holds up it has a fair bit of wonk that I'm going to attribute to being an early SNES game. I found myself taking a lot of cheap hits through the game and falling into pits because of that "black hole" pull you get when even a sliver of Link is off the ledge, and it feels needlessly difficult to hit soldiers instead of their swords without getting hit yourself (this isn't Ys, people). It's also a hell of a lot shorter than I remembered it; I beat it with only two Save/Quits, compared to the 10 on my cart's first file and the 100+ I'm sure it took me as a kid. I also found out, completely on accident, that Skull Woods is kind of borked and it's possible to skip most of the dungeon and blow through in ten minutes.

I hope nobody minds me spoiling a 25-year-old game that any self-respecting gamer should have already played, but at the end when it's revealed Agahnim was Ganon all along? Maybe when I was a kid this blew my mind (though to be honest, I'm not sure I even understood the twist or what an "alter-ego" was), but nowadays I think it's a bullshit plot twist for the sake of having a plot twist. I mean, the maidens were constantly warning Link that Ganon had to be defeated before he completely broke the Wise Men's Seal and escaped into the Light World, but that's thrown out the window when it's revealed that Ganon was already able to get into the Light World as Agahnim. Now, maybe because the seal is weaker around Hyrule Castle due to its relationship to the Pyramid and you never see Agahnim outside of the castle in the Light World, he could manifest within Hyrule Castle but needed to break the seal to get to the rest of the Light World. But I guess I'm not the only person who thinks this plot twist is stupid, because in both the Nintendo Power comic and a more recent manga interpretation, Agahnim is a different person.

(Also, I apologize for the halfassed screenshot. I don't have my capture card, and I tried to play to the Dark World on my flash cart and transfer the save to the computer to get a screenshot on an emulator, but the graphics were bugging out like nobody's business on both SNES9x and bsnes, so I had to take what I could get.)


The Unwanteds (Lisa McMann)

Quill is a dystopian desert world where nobody is supposed to show emotions or have independent thought, or else they're branded an "Unwanted" and executed in a yearly purge. But when the Unwanteds are dropped off at the facility to be executed, they're instead whisked away to Artime, a secret school full of whimsey and animated statues where they learn magic fueled by art. While the cover of the book called it "Harry Potter meets Hunger Games", I'd go with Harry Potter and 1984, but then again, I haven't read Hunger Games.

The story centers around Alex, who was sentenced to death while his twin brother was considered desirable enough to stay in Quill. Because of his bond to somebody in the other world, the instructors are initially hesitant to give him magical training, causing everyone else in the school to go all "let's all give this guy shit then act like he's the asshole when he gives it back" on him. Then there's a mysterious bully character, and back in Quill Alex's twin is getting cozy with the high priestess that runs everything, and eventually shit hits the fan.

It was basically okay, I guess, although it made the same mistake Sorcerer's Stone did by creating a magical world and not doing much with it, Lani was kind of a bitch (granted, that it more satisfying when the giant cheetah statue puts her in her place) and Samheed was a bit of a cipher, but I want to talk about a grating implication of the book. Maybe this is me missing the forest for the trees, or letting something bug me more than it probably should, but since when has intelligence been considered a bad thing? Not only is it the "strong and intelligent" that are considered desirable in Quill, but during the big fight at the end Mr. Today tells all the Artime students "[Quill's] brains and brawn are no match for your creativity." Hell, isn't intelligence a part of creativity? They could have used that as an opportunity to delve in the difference between "ability to memorize and regurgitate contextless facts" and "actual cognitive faculties", which is something I wish more people would do instead of writing shallow genius characters that talk in Latin and then recite The Iliad wrong (why is Daniel X coming up so much this month?) but nope, let's just demonize all intelligence!


The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (3DS)

Link Between Worlds is like a child imitating the cool kids on the playground in hopes everyone will think he's just as cool. This time Link is up against Ganondorf crossed with Flea from Chrono Trigger, who wants to use the Triforce of Power to gain ultimate beauty (and then turns himself into a pig man). The means Link has to essentially go through Link to the Past again. Same Light/Dark world dichotomy, same Light World layout, same plot about collecting pendants in the Light World for the Master Sword and saving the descendants of important people who have been imprisoned in objects in the Dark World, same visual assets, even the same music albeit shittier (who thought the Dark World theme in a calypso style was appropriate??). They even reuse several bosses and this is petty, I know, but this incarnation of Moldorm looks like he's made out of hamburgers.

I guess they at least they changed the layout of the actual dungeons. Then again, they seem more sloppily designed, as if the developers decided the player could just turn on the 3D to figure out where the fuck things are sitting in space if it's that important to them. And the Dark World is broken up by some giant fissures that just make getting around in it a pain in the ass. They also made it so you can only switch back into the Light World at the same places you entered the Dark World (yes, I know the Dark World is "Lorule" this time, it's still the Dark World to me), instead of using an item to do it anywhere, which is a thing, I guess.

There's a few interesting ideas that use Link to the Past for a basis, like how you access the Light World's desert through the Dark World's swamp this time, but at the very end of the dungeon you switch back into the Dark World for the boss fight (this idea could have been expanded upon by having the player switch between the two worlds several times through the dungeon), but most of the time you can practically hear the game crying "I'm doing everything as close as I can to Link to the Past! WHY DON'T YOU LOVE ME THE SAME WAY YOU LOVE LINK TO THE PAST?"

Oh wait, there's a windmill dungeon on the lake island where the wishing fairy used to be, and Turtle Rock and the Ice Palace have had their locations switched, so never fucking mind.

Link Between Worlds has two gimmicks to make it not a total regurgitation of Link to the Past. The first is the ability to turn Link into a drawing and walk along walls and through cracks. This is... actually an interesting concept, and if they'd ditched the connection to Link to the Past and made a completely new Zelda out of this idea, I think I'd have been more taken in with the results.

The other is that items you'd expect to find in the game's dungeons are instead acquired from a merchant in a rabbit costume. This gimmick is incomprehensible to me. I've been told this was done so you can complete the dungeons in any order you want, but when people say that, I don't hear "the game gives you freedom", I hear "there's no difficulty curve". I think this is part of the reason the dungeons are so bland, because they had to be designed for the possibility that the only item you have is the one needed to get into it. Also, you need to beat Totally-Not-Blind to unlock the item needed for the swamp/desert dungeon, and that dungeon yields the Titan's Mitt which is needed to get into the water palace, so I'm not totally buying the "freedom" angle.

For a small fee you can rent them, or for a much larger fee you can buy them for keeps. You keep the rented items until you die, but you don't lose them if you die with a fairy. And since you can rent all nine items for less than buying any one of them, why not just rent everything and keep a bunch of fairies in case you fall asleep and get killed? Well, there's this octopus whose babies are scattered throughout the two worlds, and every time you return ten of them she'll upgrade an item (or your spin attack when you return all 100), the catch being you have to own the item. There's also fuck-all else to do with the rupees the game showers you with, so why the hell not.

Oh, and the big plot twist about why Lorule is in ruins? I don't know whether to laugh at the game's writers or Princess Hilda's ancestors for not knowing the difference between "desperation" and "stupidity". That's like poisoning the lake that serves as your city's water supply because you're getting sick of people fighting over it.